The great catchment cons

The Blairs chose a school eight miles from home for their son. Some par ents go much further, Sarah Strickland finds
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The Independent Online
Getting your child into a popular state school these days is becoming something of an art. Parents who live outside the catchment area of an over-subscribed school but who are still determined to obtain a place for their child are going to extraor dinarylengths to do so. Some are using more and more elaborate ruses, and even showing themselves willing to lie in order to jump the queue.

Chris Mooney, who teaches the final-year class at Robert Blair primary school in Islington, north London, is well versed in many of the tactics currently employed by parents. "The best one is measuring the distance between your house and the school," shesays. "One family actually took a tape measure and measured from their garden gate to the school gate. It was a case of millimetres and they won on appeal."

Parents can also appeal on the grounds that their child has special needs. "Suddenly, in the final year, we start to hear that some children are dyslexic, or that they have especially delicate personalities that couldn't cope with the rough and tumble ofthe local comprehensive." Pupils also suddenly start attending church and Sunday school, and there is a flurry of first communions, because parents chasing places at church schools have realised that they need to prove their religious pedigree.

"Those who are in the know start planning well in advance," said Ms Mooney. "Some will move children from state primaries to voluntary aided Church of England schools two years before they are due to go to secondary school, because they think that will give them more of a chance."

Among those who stay, there are some mysterious changes of address in the final year. Some are genuine, because parents have actually bought houses in the catchment area and moved. "Others are using a grandparent's or an uncle's address, which is very crafty, because it's hard to prove that the child isn't staying there. Some parents who have separated will start using the address of the partner nearest the school of their choice and you can't really query that."

Local education authorities can withdraw places only before the start of term. If a deception is uncovered afterwards, they have no power to move pupils, and little desire to punish the child for its parents bad behaviour. Simon Adams, divisional education officer for Oxford City Council, has spent many a pleasant afternoon knocking on doors to check addresses and battling his way through undergrowth to try out what parents are claiming are viable routes to schools. "We take those who live closest to the school by the nearest walking route," he explained. "There are a lot of arguments about routes, with people saying they can cut across other people's gardens, or claiming footpaths exist where they don't.

"If we are doubtful about an address, we check with the primary schools first. Then we can check the council tax lists, or visit. Very often people will open the door and say they've never heard of the person. But if it's a relation, it's sometimes very difficult to prove that a child doesn't live there. And if they are renting and have actually moved in, then it becomes their address, even if it's only for a few weeks.

"There's nothing we can do about that. It's very difficult sorting out the genuine cases of homeless people in bedsits and those who've moved in temporarily."

A once-common ruse that most local authorities have now cracked down on was the false house-sale. Peter Downes, head of Hinchingbroke School in Huntingdon, said parents would claim that they were in the middle of buying a house in the catchment area. "Then, low and behold, after term had started, the sale would fall through." Roy Castleton, head of Lytchett Minster school in Dorset, has had parents living in tents and caravans in the campsite next door to the school, and one family even moved into a boat on Poole Harbour. "They assured me they were buying a house, but when they eventually did, it was outside the catchment area so I was caught out." Now parents are usually required to produce a solicitor's letter confirming that at least a deposit has been paid.

So bending the rules doesn't always work. Sue Arnold, who lives in the north London borough of Brent, lived "half a road" outside the catchment area for the primary school she had chosen for her children. "I told the school I'd moved to an address in thecatchment area but someone went to check up. They asked the neighbours if they'd seen any young children round here and they said no so I didn't get in. I don't feel bad about it at all, I just thought I'd do anything. Now I'm having to pay for them to go to a private school."

Robert Black (not his real name) said that the one school he considered in Hackney was impossible to get into. "You have to move into the playground to get a place." He used a friend's address to try to get a place at Prior Weston School in the Barbican instead, but it still wasn't near enough. "We were a bit nervous about whether we would carry it off so we were slightly relieved when we failed."

Nick Donaldson's son was genuinely allergic to eggs, but Mr Donaldson still laughs when he thinks that was how his son got a place at Pinner Park Infant School in Harrow. "We said that because the other school was open plan, they wouldn't be able to control the eggs so well; someone might give him an egg sandwich."

Once a claim goes to appeal, the head of the school no longer has any say in the matter. While some parents suspect that the head may pass on information to the authority, others are surprisingly open about their plans to con the council. Mr Downes remembers a couple planning their marital "split" in front of him.

"They decided to have a row about an infidelity and separate. She would take their son and move in with her sister, who lived in the catchment area. Once the child was at the school, they would have a `reconciliation'."

Mick and Susan Shaw were so determined to get their daughter Felicity into Silverdale School in Sheffield that they kept her away from school for three months and taught her at home. Although they lived outside the catchment area, their elder daughter, Verity, was already at the school, so they had a strong case for a place.

"We decided that if we gave in and sent her somewhere else, they would just sweep it under the carpet," said Mr Shaw. When the authority awarded three extra places to people below them on the priority list, they wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and eventually won their case. "At the end of the day, we would have moved into the catchment area if we'd had to."

While parents are racking their brains to come up with new ploys, even going to the lengths of employing lawyers to represent them at appeals, at least someone is benefiting. Estate agents with property in sought-after catchment areas are well aware of the added selling point.

Graham MacDonald, area manager for Allen and Harris in Oxford, said that its promotional material now invariably mentioned the catchment area of a popular school. "It's something that we are more aware of than we have ever been. It can add a premium of up to £5,000 on a house, although I don't think people realise that they might be paying for the catchment area."